Public schools boss begins retirement Wednesday

Published 12:30 am Sunday, June 27, 2010

Price the educator

Business is the future

Imagine setting up a new kind of high school, one that combines the most challenging course of studies with hands-on, real world, practical experience, retains the fun parts such as football, cheerleading and student activities, but also starts the clock on corporate experience.

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It’s the wave of the future, says Dr. James Price, retiring superintendent of the Vicksburg Warren School District.

“If you could set up your own school, and have that (business component) as a pull-out — follow a rigid curriculum that far surpasses what the state requires, have guest speakers and lecturers and laboratories with people who do that for a living, pull (students) out and have that experience for the first four periods of the day and then they go back into the high school environment for the rest of the day — that would be powerful.”

That kind of business involvement has already been set in motion here, Price says.

In a lengthy “state of the schools” interview at his Mission 66 office last week as he prepared for his retirement Wednesday, Price talked about where VWSD has been and where it’s going.

“We are being swept up in a political wave that the rest of the country is caught in, too,” he said, referencing high-stakes testing, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, demands for teacher accountability and other forces that have shaped his tenure as the district’s leader during the past seven years.

There is excitement and hope, however, in how the business community is getting involved.

“Locally, corporate professionals in the area are beginning to focus more on growing their own professionals, and beginning that process in high school, even in junior high,” he said. “I think that they realize that if you are going to get that employee to come into your business or your company and stay there, you’re going to have to have somebody that’s been nurtured and home grown.”

Engineers and technicians from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Research and Development Center, for example, have worked with students on prize-winning robotics and other school projects.

In addition, Entergy Mississippi sees strengthening local education as a priority, Liz Brister, the company’s manager of external affairs, recently told a Vicksburg civic group.

“We want to focus on education because we think it’s critical to our company as well as to our state’s economy,” Brister said. “We have an urgent need to fill our pipeline of employees.” Their recruiting begins with reaching students through innovative science, technology, engineering and math instruction in the high schools, including the Power Path nuclear science curriculum in use at Port Gibson High School.

Price wants to see similar business involvement from medical and other professional fields.

“We are better positioned than anyone else to do just that,” he said. “We have more professional people here than any other place in the state.”

Price took office July 1, 2003, coming in with the policies and dictates created by the No Child Left Behind Act — its full title, “An act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility and choice, so that no child is left behind.”

Price said its goals were admirable, but flawed.

“What’s happened with federal intervention is they want to standardize education,” he said. “It’s a federal mandate, a federal decree that these kids achieve uniform results. How can you take individual students with individual personalities and individual abilities and decree that they all achieve uniform results? That’s a real challenge.”

Price and his staff have worked to address the accountability requirements of the act, dissecting state-set curriculum and creating scope and sequence road maps to plot, in discrete chunks, what needs to be taught at each level. Then he worked with his staff to create “benchmark tests” to measure learning at weekly intervals.

While some teachers and parents complain that the tests stifle creativity and limit class time available for enrichment, Price said the tests do reveal the truth about what a student has actually learned and a teacher has actually taught.

They’re needed, he said, because NCLB demands an internal accountability system, and because at the end of the year, there’s a high-stakes state test waiting for each student — a potential powder keg for school officials everywhere.

“We will be judged by one test a year,” Price said. “That’s the largest and greatest challenge (the new superintendent) will face.”

Test scores influence school and district ratings.

After several years at the “average” level based on in-state comparisons, VWSD was rated “at risk of failing” in 2009 as the national comparison model kicked in. Some individual schools ranked higher, notably Bowmar Avenue Elementary, which missed a national “star school” rating by just three points, and Beechwood, which was “successful.”

Price said unequivocally that the ratings are not an accurate reflection of what the kids are learning. The district has excellent teachers who demonstrate patience and tenacity, he said, and quality administrators committed to helping teachers improve but also willing to tackle the unpleasant and expensive task of non-renewing the contracts of those who aren’t doing the job.

But low test scores have rankled parents and school board trustees.

“We’ve still got some work to do in the area of test scores,” said vice president Tommy Shelton, an engineer who has been on the board for the past six years. “I know (Price) had developed the intercession to improve that. It’s unfortunate that didn’t go as he had hoped.”

Intercession, a period of extra help given to students not meeting benchmarks at the end of each nine-week term, failed after two years. Price said a philosophical shift — admitting 21st century students need more days in school each year, and funding them — might have saved it.

Shelton said a change in leadership might energize faculty and administration. “Anytime you have a change, it’s a positive thing in some ways,” he said. “A new person comes in with different ideas, different style,” creating a new momentum.

Price said he has benefitted from untiring assistance from central office staff and directors. “The truth is, I can think up stuff — but then it falls to Ms. (Debra) Hullum and Dr. (John) Walls and other people out there to make it happen, and they do it,” he said. “They work so hard to support the principals in the buildings. And the other real plus is the amount of community support that exists.”

That includes local law enforcement and youth court authorities, because in addition to politics, crime is also a modern fact of life in the schools.

Price’s experience included at least three years as a district discipline officer. The year before he took office, 54 students had been expelled. He thought there was a better way.

“The expulsion doesn’t do anybody any good,” he said. “We needed to build a completely new system, and that’s what we did. We developed a whole program from scratch.”

The system goes all the way from identifying “behaviorally-challenged” kids as early as pre-kindergarten, to providing GED programs for young adults. Community service, the alternative Grove Street school that keeps kids in class even during suspensions and reduced expulsions are among the products.

“Discipline for young people has changed over the last five years,” Price added. Juvenile crime — a concern of city and county law enforcement, the District Attorney and justice officials, who are tracking statistics carefully — overlaps more and more often with school issues, and has created a new layer of challenges.

Price summed it up, putting the ultimate responsibility not on federal or state government, schools or parents, but the student: “Our mission…is to provide a safe and orderly environment which allows every teacher to teach and every student the opportunity to learn. That’s our mission, with respect to discipline. Then the question becomes if the student will avail himself of the opportunity to learn.”

As his tenure comes to a close, Price admits being tired but says he’s grateful.

“There are very few people who are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be the superintendent of schools,” he said. “I was allowed, for whatever reason, to have this opportunity. Of all the things I’ve done, this has to be right there at the top.”

Price the man

Time to finish that boat

Jim Price is a builder.

When the politics that infuses modern education got messy or a crisis erupted during his seven years as superintendent of the Vicksburg Warren School District, in the back of his mind, Dr. James Price would think about building Jim Price’s boat.

It was catharsis, he said.

“I had to have something that would give me refuge,” said Price, who retires Wednesday, in a recent interview at his office. Days at the office, evenings at meetings, or lying awake at 2 a.m., “I would force myself to build the boat in my head. I had to have a place in my head to go that didn’t have anything to do with any of this. The boat was my place to go.”

Not that Price avoided the demands of the job. He was known for arriving at the office before 5:30 every morning. He averaged nearly 70 hours a week at the district and maintained an office at home, where he put in more time.

“You are dealing with so many people’s lives,” he said. “Every decision you make has consequences and impacts so many people. You have to do it right.”

He’s also managed a budget that’s reached $80 million.

When Price took the job, he set up a “Big 10” of categories — discipline, instructional, transportation, federal programs, and so on — and created pages of goals for each. Like a blueprint, it’s been on his desk every day since.

At Price’s final VWSD board meeting Thursday night, president Zelmarine Murphy said he was never one to look at the clock. She reminded him to have fun in his retirement.

“I know how to get (to your house), and I’ll probably find you in your workshop. I’ll try to bring you some Kool-Aid and a peanut butter sandwich,” she said, to Price’s amusement.

Price is, in fact, building a boat — a 32-foot, river-navigable aluminum houseboat that sleeps six.

He also built the workshop, as well as the house he and his wife, Cassandra, live in in south Warren County. He started building the house when he was still in college, carving a plot out of family land, clearing it little by little and putting the house up piece by piece. He learned a bit of carpentry, electrical and plumbing skills in school, but taught himself the rest.

“No one has touched my house but me,” he said.

Price earned a bachelor’s degree from Ole Miss with a triple major in English, philosophy and political science. Later, he earned a master’s from Mississippi College and a doctorate in educational leadership from Jackson State.

He came to VWSD with a varied background that included a time in business building houses in Vicksburg, a year teaching English at All Saints’, the former Episcopal school on Confederate Avenue now home to AmeriCorps, and several years as a teacher and principal at Oakley Training School in Raymond, a facility under the umbrella of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

Price does not like to talk a lot about all this: “What I did in the past, I think, was nothing more than getting me finally to where I was supposed to be.”

His experience with the district began in 1991, when he was hired to teach a class of 15 overage fifth graders at the old Jett Elementary. He was chairman of the district’s Discipline Review Committee, attending hearings. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming assistant principal, principal and former Superintendent Donald Oakes’ administrative assistant.

One of Price’s goals when he took the helm was to rebuild the neighborhood school model, the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade community configuration. That was accomplished in 2005.

Price also helped build a legal and emotional platform shared by the schools and the county youth court to educate students with the most serious behavior problems, those who have slipped into the criminal justice system.

He’s built a framework for student and teacher accountability in an educational age that demands numerical proof of performance and success.

It’s constructive work that has enabled him to rise above the politics of 21st century education.

“In education, you have to find the things that work that are not subject to political fluctuations,” Price said. “If you are going to impact education, if you are going to come in to this job and do the job, you have to effect change, and change is hard fought.”

At the same time, Price recognizes that in education, some change is short-lived — and that’s political, too.

“One of the things that really challenges all of us today is that we have a tendency to, whatever the social ill is, whatever the problem is, we rush in with a program to fix it,” he said. “And we go off on a tangent, saying this is what we have to do to fix it, but it’s so subject to political swing that I can do that for a year or two years and then have a different administration come in and I’m all the way back over here, 180 degrees, and doing just the opposite.”

Teachers and administrators learn to just wait it out, he said.

His plans for retirement include finishing that boat. “My wife wants me to remodel the kitchen, so I’ll do that,” he added. He and Cassandra also intend to travel. They have one son, unmarried, an engineer in Seattle, and one daughter, a chemical engineer who practices law in Baton Rouge. She is married with a 3-year-old son and 9-month-old daughter.

Being superintendent has been all-consuming, and has taken “the whole me,” he said. “When you live and breathe it so intensely for so long, it’ll be quite an adjustment” to be retired.

He does not plan a reception or any hoopla as he leaves.

“I’ll walk out and be gone.”